Imported From Detroit (III)

Ruin Porn brings out some strong responses from both sides of the story. Those who believe that "the city shall rise from the ashes" often feel that those who shoot and publish ruin porn are praying on the city and the citizens at their lowest. The advocates, of course, speak to the art and the documentation of the decline. They aren't anti-renewal but only making visual commentary on the current state of the city. 

The central focus of ruin porn for at least two decades if not more has been Detroit. Sure Cleveland has some crumbling infrastructure and Flint was abandoned by GM as documented by Michael Moore. Anywhere in the country you can get a shot of a decrepit bridge or a dam that will fail in the "next ten years" or so. As a nation we have been woefully negligent of infrastructure and just plain normal maintenance. 

But only in Detroit has ruin porn been taken to the level of high art. And why not, Detroit has been in decline long before the auto industry disappeared. Remember the riots of 1967? White Flight equaled Detroit well before then. The city has been a canvas for decay and abandonment for decades.

The entire range of ruin porn advocates and dissenters is covered with some truly in-depth reporting from Guernica magazine last month in an article titled Detroitism. Not surprisingly there are those who believe Detroit is beginning an urban renaissance; though they don't used that term as it would be harshly contrasted with the Renaissance Center build on Detroit's waterfront in 1977. Others believe that Detroit is in fact that old, grey canary in the mine of industrial collapse of the rust belt. A canary, which by the way, has been lying on the bottom of its cage for decades.

The Guernica article lays out the dichotomy: "Detroit figures as either a nightmare image of the American Dream, where equal opportunity and abundance came to die, or as an updated version of it, where bohemians from expensive coastal cities can the the one-hundred dollar house and community garden of their dreams."

Community gardens indeed, there are serious conversations and even pilot projects to turn vast areas of Detroit into urban farms. Not those vacant lot gardens that dot many urban landscapes but wide fields of urban vegetation to sustain the survivors of the post-industrial wasteland.

There is another article that seeks to attack the purveyors of ruin porn from Vice magazine. It's subtitled: Lazy Journalists Love Pictures of Abandoned Stuff. Nevermind that they use some of the photographs from those lazy journalists to illustrate their story quite effectively, the piece ends with a quote from one of those ruin porn artists they are criticizing: "It's a problem with the culture. I don't know why you'd want to be in China or Russia, because it's happening here. We're in the center of the empire now, and here's where you can see the collapse of the empire starting."

For those who do not fear the photography police finding your ruin porn links. Here are some of the best and most vilified offerings.

Forgotten Detroit is perhaps more of a nostalgia website for those who may actually remember some of these old buildings from their glory days. The photographer is a local and provides interesting historical tidbits.

Detroit Disassembled by Andrew Moore may be the most well known of the ruin porn books. There is also a streaming PBS piece on his work. This from a positive review:

"Photographer Andrew Moore takes us beyond the individual toll of a failed economy to something more Pompeiian in scope. To an empty city falling in upon itself, in unspeakable tragic beauty. Andrew writes in the book of his own excavations: of a grove of birch trees literally growing from rotting books, of a homeless man frozen head first at the bottom of a flooded elevator shaft, of pheasants with entire city blocks to themselves to roost and nest, of the surreal re-ruralization of what was once America's fourth largest city, now covered in ivy and moss. Moore's spectacular photographs take us to places where the outside has come in and where the inside, quiet and soaring as a cathedral, has become sacred in its desolation."

The other book I must mention is the Ruins of Detroit. A five year collaboration resulted in an at times visually stunning collection of images. This is, if nothing else, the height of ruin porn as seen in the decline of Detroit. From their website:

"Detroit, industrial capital of the XXth Century, played a fundamental role shaping the modern world. The logic that created the city also destroyed it. Nowadays, unlike anywhere else, the city's ruins are not isolated details in the urban environment. They have become a natural component of the landscape. Detroit presents all archetypal buildings of an American city in a state of mummification. Its splendid decaying monuments are, no less than the Pyramids of Egypt, the Coliseum of Rome, or the Acropolis in Athens, remnants of the passing of a great Empire."

And finally, for those who see differently, there is Reimagining Detroit: Opportunities for Redefining an American City. Here Detroit is seen as a smaller but better city.

"Though the book focuses on Detroit, the challenges outlined here are readily applicable to other, post-industrial cities that are struggling to reimagine themselves in the 21st century. For those interested in cities, particularly in how to turn them around and re-imagine them, there is no better lab than Detroit.

More on the Motor City soon, I have yet to express my own thoughts on the future of Detroit.

Imported from Detroit: Part II
Imported from Detroit: Part I